Tharoor Line | Population explosion: Jobs, not numbers, matter

A scene from a crowded metro station in New Delhi
A scene from a crowded metro station in New Delhi

In the tailpiece to my column last week, I mentioned that we had received the not very welcome news that India is likely to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in 2023 – as soon as next year. Previous projections had placed this development somewhat farther into the future, so this was a dubious Number One ranking for our country, seemingly suggesting that the alarmism in some circles about a “population explosion” was well-founded. I promised to delve behind this story in more detail this week – and here we are.

Earlier this month, the United Nations’ Population Division released the 2022 edition of its World Population Prospects report (WPP), which stated that India’s population would overtake China’s next year.

The World Population Prospects had projected about 30 years ago that India’s population will peak at 1.53 billion in 2050; it looked as if we would reach that number much sooner, and still be climbing.

Several television channels hysterically declared that India’s population is exploding and could only be controlled through a stringent law. Some – inevitably in the toxic communal atmosphere that now envelops the country -- sought to blame the Muslim community for the increased numbers, and some political leaders, mainly of the Hindutva persuasion, demanded a population control law.

On Friday, a BJP actor-MP who has four children of his own introduced a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament seeking to restrict everyone else to two.

It is time for everyone to calm down. First of all, the debate is premature. As a result of the Covid pandemic, the nationwide census that takes place every 10 years has been postponed, and we do not have the numbers for 2021. These may well confirm that rumours and panic-mongering about a “population explosion” are exaggerated.

One of the bylanes in Old Delhi
One of the bylanes in Old Delhi

The alarmism is not supported by recent evidence or data: in fact, there has been a significant decline in population growth rate in the last half century. In 1972, our population was growing at 2.3%; today the growth rate is less than 1%. There is another useful measurement, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which refers to the number of children born to an Indian woman during her reproductive years. This used to be 5.4 fifty years ago; today it is 2.1 (i.e it has gone down from a number that guarantees fast population growth, to one that corresponds to the “replacement fertility rate” at which the population merely replaces itself, without growing). This TFR, demographers predict, will continue to decline, reaching about 1.1 by 2100, marking an overall decline in total population.

Kerala, for instance, is likely to show a loss of population when the 2021 census is conducted, from its 2011 figures. Our state’s TFR has already dropped below 2. Yet, in the short term, India’s population will continue to grow, since our demography is disproportionately youthful and the young will reproduce in the coming years. But eventually, around mid-century, India’s total population is expected to stabilise at about 1.6 billion.

A crowded lane in Old Delhi during the monsoon
A crowded lane in Old Delhi during the monsoon

Another point worth stressing is that these are “secular trends” – and there is no dramatic contrast between Hindus and Muslims. Poonam Muttreja of the Population Foundation of India points out that in the last 30 years, both communities have witnessed a sharp decline in their TFRs: Hindus from 3.3 in 1992 to 1.94 today, Muslims from 4.4 in 1992 to 2.3 today. While that still shows Muslims on the whole growing faster than Hindus, the difference is marginal. And there are also regional variations: the TFR of Muslims in Tamil Nadu, for instance, is lower than that of Hindus in Bihar.

What, then, is the issue with the WPP’s revelations? The real problem is not absolute numbers, but the way those numbers are distributed. Demographers talk about the “dependency ratio” – that is, the number of people too young or too old to work, who are dependent on those of productive age to support them. (“Too young” is usually calculated as below 14 and “too old” as above 60, though these days many between 60 and 65 are still working and earning.)

China, today, is facing the consequences of its earlier draconian one-child policy, as that one child has grown up and is required to support four retired grandparents. India is theoretically better off and the trend line is favourable, because in 1991 as many as 80% of our population was in one or the other of these categories, relying on the remaining 20% to earn for them; today it is about 57% who are too young or too old, being supported by 43% of working age.

A photo from a crowded lane in New Delhi
A photo from a crowded lane in New Delhi

In theory, this is good news for India. It hints at the “demographic dividend” that optimists have been raving about for a decade.

But there is one major flaw in the “good news” argument. It is the assumption that everyone of working age is actually working. Sadly, as we know from recent facts, this is not true; in 2021-22, unemployment was at the worst levels ever recorded in India. While some uptick was reported during this fiscal year as the Covid pandemic ebbed, only 55% of Indians in the age group 15-64 have any employment at all, including part-time or seasonal. So there is a disguised dependency ratio that escapes the demographers.

The key, in other words, to understanding our demographic issues is not whether we are Number 1 in the world or not. It is in ensuring adequate levels and quality of education, health care, investment and economic opportunities to generate jobs for Indians of working age. Those who work will support those who do not. And if they can, the total numbers will not matter.

Droupadi Murmu, India's youngest & first tribal president, to take oath today
President-elect Droupadi Murmu being greeted at her residence in New Delhi, Friday, July 22, 2022. Photo: PTI

Respect for Murmu

India has a new President, Droupadi Murmu, the youngest-ever Rashtrapati, who is also the first Adivasi – from a community who are among India’s original inhabitants – to hold the post. The backbiting going on about whether she is merely a token, and what good it will do for India’s Scheduled Tribes to have one of their own in the highest office in the land, is unseemly. Aside from the fact that her own personal life journey from humble origins to Rashtrapati Bhavan is an inspiring one, it is also an established convention to honour our President as above politics. I call on my fellow politicians to unite in showing respect for President Murmu and the office she adorns.

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.